WASHINGTON - While President Bush is proposing to spend tens of billions of dollars to try to defend the United States from nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, critics contend he is overlooking a far more immediate nuclear threat that could be eased much less expensively.
The most probable vehicle for a U.S.-targeted nuclear bomb, defense analysts say, is not the one Bush has focused on: an expensive intercontinental missile launched by North Korea, Iran or some other mercurial Third World nation.
Instead, people wishing to kill Americans with a nuclear explosion are far more likely to steal or buy a bomb from Russia and smuggle it into the United States by truck or ship, analysts say.
But so far Bush has taken no action on an urgent recommendation by a bipartisan task force to quadruple U.S. spending on controlling "loose nukes" in Russia.
In fact, amid a feeling in the administration and on Capitol Hill that Moscow gets too much U.S. aid already, Bush's 2002 budget cuts nuclear-control assistance for Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union by more than 10 percent, to about $750 million.
That raises the already substantial risk that Russian nuclear warheads, thousands of which exist in disorganized warehouses secured by poorly paid guards, will slip into the wrong hands, critics say.
"We were not spending enough to begin with" on controlling nuclear materials in former Soviet states, California Rep. Ellen Tauscher, ranking Democrat on a congressional panel overseeing the program, said in an interview yesterday.
"Now we have, in the president's budget, dramatic cuts. My sense is that he should look at the whole bandwidth of the issue [of nuclear threats] and not the one little piece he seems to have seized on."
Bush, in a speech Tuesday, pledged to develop and deploy a multilayered defensive system to shoot down missiles headed toward the United States, its allies and friends. He put no price tag on the project, but the Clinton administration's far less ambitious missile defense plan was projected to cost $60 billion.
In January a task force headed by former Clinton White House counsel Lloyd N. Cutler and former Republican Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. called loose Russian nuclear weapons "the most urgent unmet national security threat." The panel recommended boosting annual U.S. spending on the problem to $3 billion, a four-fold increase.
Baker, Bush's nominee to be ambassador to Japan, said he's amazed that the problem hasn't prompted more concern.
"It really boggles my mind that there could be 40,000 nuclear weapons ... in the former Soviet Union, poorly controlled and poorly stored, and that the world isn't in a near state of hysteria about the danger," Baker told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a month ago. "But it's a function of the human mind that, after you live with something for a while, you get used to it."
The world has lived with poorly secured Russian weapons for a decade, ever since the fall of the Soviet Union eviscerated the Communist Party structure that controlled the nuclear arsenal.
The so-called Nunn-Lugar program and similar measures have provided more than $4 billion in U.S. financing to help Russia and other former Soviet states secure their nuclear assets, destroy some 5,000 warheads and employ out-of-work nuclear physicists.
But arms-control specialists say the problem isn't close to being solved. Between 15,000 and 40,000 - nobody seems to know for sure - warheads remain.
"We will have a whole different problem on our hands if the terrorism threat, which is continuing and is serious, finds the means to express itself through weapons of mass destruction," said Charles B. Curtis, former deputy secretary of energy and now president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit group financed by media mogul Ted Turner.
Alleged terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden "has said that he considers it a holy duty to acquire such things," Curtis added. "We have to take that seriously. We know that Russian weapons scientists are subject to recruitment by various outside elements, and that's a serious problem."
The White House is doing a comprehensive review of U.S. nonproliferation programs, expected to be finished by July. Curtis and others hope the review will lead to an increase in administration support and funding for the various control measures.
Administration officials denied that Bush has given short shrift to the United State's Russian nonproliferation programs.
John Gordon, Energy Department undersecretary for nuclear security, told Congress last month that the administration's review will look at "the quality of those programs and then see how that fits into their Russian and nonproliferation programs."
The fact that the president's speech Tuesday didn't broach the topic of poorly guarded Russian nuclear assets "doesn't mean it's not going to be addressed," said Mary Ellen Countryman, White House national security spokeswoman. "That wasn't the topic of our speech."
Nobody has documented a case of Russian warheads or weapons-grade materials being acquired by U.S. enemies. But by many accounts it hasn't been for lack of trying by criminal elements in Russia.
Law-enforcement authorities in various countries have seized more than a dozen shipments of illegal, weapons grade uranium or plutonium in the last decade, according to Rennsselaer Lee, author of "Smuggling Armageddon: The Nuclear Black Market."
In at least two cases, Russian government officials offered to sell plutonium to visiting foreign scientists, says Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
In another instance, documented by the Baker-Cutler panel, Russian sailors in Murmansk were caught recently with stolen uranium submarine fuel.
A recent poll of Russian weapons engineers and other nuclear workers conducted for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace illuminates the motivations that may underlie such actions.
Of hundreds of nuclear-weapons employees surveyed, 62 percent earn less than $50 a month, 58 percent hold second jobs, 14 percent would like to work outside Russia and 6 percent expressed an interest in moving "any place at all."
The Energy Department's "nuclear cities" program - which seeks to boost the salaries and business prospects of such people, but took a 75 percent, $20 million cut in Bush's budget - "is not foreign aid," Tauscher said. "We have a huge national security issue here."
Analysts say that many warheads and other nuclear materials still are inadequately stored throughout Russia.